Although flood stories from around the world vary widely in their content, those from Syro-Palestine and Mesopotamia (the so-called land of the Bible) are strikingly similar. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to believe that the former descended from a single source (or described a single event), the reverse may indeed be the case in the Ancient Near East. It is, after all, an area given to regular and catastrophic flooding, for which adequate archaeological and geological evidence has come to light. Furthermore, it is an area through which the story of “the flood” could easily spread: it is geographically small and well defined (the fertile crescent), its inhabitants spoke closely related Semitic languages, there was occasional political unity of the whole, and commerce was widespread throughout at all periods.
There are four accounts of the flood. The first story is The Sumerian account of the deluge, or the story of Ziusudra. This story is the oldest version that men know up to now, with the single surviving copy dating to the first half of the second millennium (about 1600 B.C.E?). This account can only be understood with the aid of other sources because it is very sketchy; only about one-third of this broken text has survived. It is learned, from elsewhere, that Ziusudras was King of the Mesopotamian city of Shuruppak, and that the place was destroyed by a great flood. The second account is the Akkadian text of the Gilgamesh Epic. In this account we can see how Utnapishtim and his family survived the flood. The larger account tells of the search for immortality by Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia. He learns that such status has actually been achieved by one Utnapishtim (”he who found life”) of Shuruppak, and sets out to find him and learn the secret of eternal life. From the latter he then hears the story of the great deluge. This flood story contains the closest parallels to the biblical account. No reason for the deluge is given, since that is not relevant in the larger epic of which flood story is now a part: ” their heart led the great gods to produce the floods.” The third account is The Atrahasis Epic which is known only from quotations in Greek and Latin writers. This story includes the creation of human beings and resultant divine dissatisfaction with them, and thus it has similarities with the account in Genesis 2-9. The last account is The account of Berosus. Berosus was a Babylonian priest of the third century B.C.E. According to Berosus, Xisouthros (i.e., Ziusudra) was warned in a dream that a disastrous flood was impending, and was told to write a history and bury it for preservation in the city of Sippar. He was then commanded to build a boat, which he was to stock with animals and then ride out the deluge with family and friends. He releases birds in order to check on the withdrawal of the waters. When he disembarks into Armenia, they suddenly disappear, apparently in keeping with the older cuneiform accounts of the survivors becoming immortals and thereafter dwelling beyond the known earth.
Readers of the English Bible are sometimes surprised to find that it relates events in the lives of two persons named Noah, and not merely of the hero of the flood story. Their names, although the same in the English versions, are clearly distinguishable in the Hebrew original.
The first, and lesser known, is one of the five daughters of Zelophehad (Num. 26:36;27:I; 36:II; Josh. 17:3). Her name, in Hebrew, is No ah, with two consonants that are different from that of the hero of the flood ( one of them, the feminine, ending in -ah).
The second, and better known, is the son of Lamech (Gen. 5:28-29). His name, in Hebrew, is No ah, a masculine form with a distinct “ah” at the end.
This son of Lamech is mentioned in the Bible in four related scopes. The first is a link in the genealogical chain that stretches from Adam to Abraham in the “primeval story” and beyond. According to the ages in Genesis 5, Adams died in Lamech s fifty-sixth year, and Noah is the first birth recorded thereafter. Perhaps this was meant to suggest a status for Noah as the second father of the human race, achieved as the ancestor of all those who were born in the postflood generations. The second is a man of exemplary virtue, such that he was allowed to survive the great flood that swept his contemporaries away. This subsequent praise of him is based upon acclaim at the preface of the flood story itself. This is one of the basic biblical portraits of Noah even though it falls outside the flood story, and indeed outside the book of Genesis. The author of 2 Peter refers to Noah as “a herald of righteousness” (2:5). While it is true that Genesis 6:9 refers to him as “a righteous man, blameless in his generation,” that is somewhat short of one “who preached righteousness.” The third is the hero of the flood story, and the fourth is the first vinicultualist and the discoverer of wine, whose consequent drunkenness provided occasion for a curse upon one line of his descendants.
In Noah s flood story we see that the flood was a consequence of man s corruption. The relationship between God and man made a dramatic shift that was caused by disobedience after creation. Eve began to doubt God s prohibition and deliberately disobeyed him when she encountered a serpent who spoke. Adam gave into Eve s persuasion. They both were conscious of their deception by the serpent and their disobedience to God afterwards. The story of Cain and Abel gives away the condition of man in his changed state. Cain and Abel worshipped God with their gifts. Abel s animal sacrifice was accepted and Cain s offering of vegetables was rejected. Thus, Cain was very angered and killed his own brother, Abel. Cain displayed an attitude of deliberate disobedience and became the first murderer since he had been warned by God.
The increasingly godlessness of civilization reached a crisis in the days of Noah. God, who had created every living thing that exists, was very disappointed in the prevailing culture. God felt regret that he created mankind. This was apparent in God s action to take away his spirit from man. Only Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
Now the earth was corrupt in God s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for all the earth is filled with violence through them; behold I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself and ark of gopher wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover the inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it; the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and set the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven; everything that is on earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you your sons, your wife, and your sons wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of all the birds according to their kind, and of animals according to their kind, of every creeping thing on the ground according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them. Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him Noah was six-hundred years old when the flood of water came upon the earth
In the six hundredth year of Noah s life, in the second month, on the seventh day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. On the very same day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham, and Fapeth, and Noah s wife and the three wives of his sons with the entered the ark, they and every beast according to its kind, and all cattle according to their kinds, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth according to its kind, and every bird according to its kind, every bird of every sort. They went into the ark with Noah, two by two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. And that they entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him. The flood continued forty days upon the earth. The waters prevailed and increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. The waters prevailed so mightily upon the earth that all high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man. An the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days. But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark. God made a wind blow over the earth, and the water subsided; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens closed. At the end of a hundred and fifty days the waters had abated; and in the seventh month, on the seventh day off the month, the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Ar arat. And the water continued to abate until the tenth month. In the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen. And Noah sent forth a raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth.
In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from the earth. Then God said to Noah, “Go forth from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons wives with you. Bring forth with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh-birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth-that they may breed abundantly on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” So Noah went forth, and his sons and wife and his sons wives with him. And every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves upon the earth, went forth by families out of the ark.
After the flood, God blessed Noah and his sons and told them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. God told them that they could eat every moving thing on earth that it was food for them, but they could not eat flesh with life, that means flesh with blood. He also told Noah and his sons that he was going to establish his covenant with them and their descendants and with every living creature that was with them. So, God establish his covenant with Noah and his sons that never again should all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again should there be a flood destroy the earth. The sign of the covenant between God and Noah and his sons and every living thing was a bow in the clouds. God would remember his covenant.
What I learned from this book is that no matter what, one is suppose to do what is right in God s sight. He knows everything; he knows what is in our minds and in our hearts. Therefore, humankind is to follow God s will and fear him. He has the right to do whatever seems right for him even if that is not the best for humanity. Also God is very powerful and can change the world. The flood represents the anger and disappointment God felt towards human beings. He felt this way due to the disobedience he saw upon the earth; all flesh was not acting according to God s will. They were warned but they did not obey. But the most important this is that God knows what is best for humankind, and whatever he does will have positive results.
The one thing that interested me the most is the fact that the story of Noah is the beginning of a series of efforts to save the world. Most of the people think of Noah as having been the hero of a unique and unparalleled catastrophe, and therefore outside of our daily experience. It is true that no man has suffered so much from the flood as Noah. The flood has infected his memory with the mist of its own antiquity. The more universal we make the deluge, the more local we make Noah, the more we isolate him from the common experience of mankind. We come to think of him as a man in a miraculous environment, a man whose life-tragedy lay in circumstances that have never occurred since, and will never occur again; and we feel that, whatever may have been his interest to his generation, his influence has perished for posterity.
The truth is that, in no reasoning, have we entirely mistaken the real point of significance in Noah s experience. The tragedy of this man s life is not the flood at all. The least interesting thing about him is precisely his sojourn in the ark. His interest for posterity lies in the building of the ark, not in the sailing of it. It lies in the fact that he was the first one who made an effort at reform.
What I really like about the book is how God, after giving the earth a flood, killing a lot of people and animals as well, makes a covenant with Noah and his that never again will there be a flood of this magnitude. This means that God felt pleased with Noah s obedience and dedication that he thought that after that, all mankind would be more obedient. This gave hope and faith to the new inhabitants of the earth.
What I did not like about the book is the fact that there are several accounts of just one story. It can be possible that people can make up stories according to their beliefs and traditions.
The Person and the Story in History and Tradition
Lloyd R. Bailey
Lloyd R. Bailey is an associate professor of Hebrew Bible at the Divinity School of Duke University. He has taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York and served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature (Southeastern Section). Dr. Bailey is the author of numerous books and articles as well as having served as the editor of The Interpreter s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume.